The New Harmony Bridge has been closed almost one year and buzz is still surrounding the structure. The bridge was recently listed among the 10 most endangered landmarks in Indiana by Indiana Landmarks.
According to a recent article in the Evansville Courier Press, Jim Clark, the chairman of the three-member White County Bridge Commission that owns the bridge, hopes the bridge could be replaced. Clark feels there are too many safety concerns for the current bridge and feels strongly that it will not reopen to traffic. As a member of the White County Bridge Commission, Clark has spent many hours with engineers and has exhausted all avenues in keeping the structure available to traffic of any kind.
"I have cited safety concerns, the same opinion that was expressed last September at a town hall meeting in New Harmony," said Clark, who has been on the commission since 1994. "I have spent numerous hours with engineers as they went over all aspects of the bridge. In the last deal, I was there for 82 hours of inspection. At one time, nine engineers were there from Indiana, Illinois and the Federal level. The bridge is just not safe to reopen."
Clark noted at the September meeting, which included some very influential people from both Indiana and Illinois as well as at a national level, he made a motion to completely turn the bridge over to the states and the Federal government and totally eliminate the White County Bridge Commission. However, the motion died from lack of a second from the other two commissioners.
Clark realizes the impact it has had on local business and wishes he had better news, but expresses, "I know where we are at, and I told the townspeople that I was going to say things they didn't like, but I was speaking from my heart. Safety comes first."
Clark also noted that even if the White County Bridge Commission were to open the structure back up, there would be no traffic. Both IDOT and INDOT control the traffic over the bridge and they are holding the traffic and would not allow it to pass over the bridge, even if the bridge was reopened by the commission.
Neither side of the bridge has expressed any interest in taking ownership of the bridge. Estimates to replace the bridge were reported last summer at $25 million, and although the Indiana Department of Transportation offered $10 million toward the project, the Illinois side declined and some reports say Illinois expects an estimate to fall closer to $35 million based on the bridge put in at Mt. Carmel.
Many area residents have inquired about other options in crossing the Wabash River at New Harmony, Ind. such as a ferry or to open the current structure as a pedestrian/golf cart passage. But Clark raises the question of who would be responsible for it.
Page 2 of 2 - "We pay insurance on the bridge," said Clark. "We would gladly turn it over, but someone has to step up and be responsible for it in case of an accident."
Clark cites that a ferry is not impossible, but it's extremely not likely. He referred to the ferry at Cave-In-Rock, which is operated by the states. With two other bridges as close as they are, the states would most likely not support a ferry in the area.
Clark said the best option would be to totally tear it down and build a new bridge. He said that John Donovan of Illinois has stated there is a possibility of federal dollars for the project, but there would be no money from Illinois like the $10 million that Indiana has proposed for the structure.
Clark admits it would cost a lot of money to tear the bridge down and remove it, but did note the steel is worth a lot of money. Also, Clark pointed out that if the bridge were erected exactly in the same place, it wouldn't need as many environmental studies.
Clark sympathizes with those who have been affected most by the closing of the bridge, such as farmers in that area, but reiterates that "safety should take precedent on the bridge's future."
A group of residents on the Indiana side of the bridge are coming together for an organizational meeting regarding the future of the bridge. An "Open the Bridge" meeting has been set for 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 15 at the Rapp-Owen Granary, located at 413 W. Granary Street in New Harmony. The forum has been formed by the citizens of a volunteer committee for the future of the bridge and invite all interested citizens to attend. The group hopes to bring together a public unit or units of public government to own the bridge currently owned by the White County Bridge Commission.
For more information on the meeting, contact (812) 682-4000.